Nikki Juen – Rules Followed, Bent and Broken

NIKKI JUEN – Rules followed, bent and broken
GDW interview


Nikki Juen is a designer, educator and artist interested in the spaces where these practices overlap. A graduate of RISD’s Graphic Design department, she is a lecturer and critic in Graphic Design and Foundation Studies at RISD. Juen is also a founding and core faculty member of the MFA in Graphic Design program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

While working with students, she continuously rethinks graphic design and the role of design in the larger culture. Her studios and workshops focus on image creation through drawing and repetition and recognize learning as an act of cognition, rather than a transfer of information. She finds delight in applying these methods to both the precise pursuits of graphic design and toward broader applications of design thinking.

Juen has professional experience at leading firms in Providence and Boston as well as an active practice in making and exhibiting drawings and encaustic paintings. Within the discipline of graphic design, rules are followed and bent to create content, structure and meaning. In deliberate contrast to this process, Juen’s personal work in the painting studio explores the absence of rules, relying on repetitive actions and multiples to direct each outcome. Her art and design work inform and filter through one another. As a graphic designer, she is inspired by painters and textiles: while in the painting studio, typography tends to find its way to the surface.

Juen’s award-winning professional practice in graphic design creates relationships on paper, with pixels and between people. Clients include Keen Footwear, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, Middlebridge School, Mayo Surfboards, RISD, Aquidneck Farms, Tyler Smith and the Roger Williams Museum of Natural History.

GDW: Will you explain both the physical and intellectual processes that lead to your creative work?

NJ: I feel the majority of the physical processes for my design work center around making sure that I’m sitting well in my chair! At this point for me graphic design involves being in front of the computer for fair amounts of time — even just e-mailing — so I find that a conscious seated posture actually helps both my thinking process and keeps my physical body from hurting after the work is done. There are more than occasional pauses for dance breaks [seriously!], which are my number one way to relieve stress and be present in my body.


As for the intellectual process, I love reading and I am an avid purchaser of books — it’s my guilty pleasure and a justified business expense. My family has stopped reading the mailing labels and just puts book-sized boxes on my desk. I collect a lot of books because it happens to be the way that I prefer to do research and communicate with the greater design world. The form of a book is a very satisfying, very physical, resolutely spatial and is able to hold a certain volume of time. That makes it an experience — one you have in a different way when you’re looking at websites, which I also do a lot, of course, as an online sort of brain expansion. [Very curated, there is a lot of crap out there] I work as a multidisciplinary practitioner…I’m working between graphic design and conceptual or participatory arts and going between the two is really intriguing. It’s been a very active process in learning how to use more aspects of my brain than I have in the recent past. Graphic design, after 25 years of practice, becomes so incredibly familiar that you don’t need to excavate the processes that are happening to get you to certain culmination of a project. Working in visual and conceptual art you’re taking-in as much as your as you’re putting-out so in a sense you’re reading the work as you’re executing it and then observing it and audience after, so that the flow seems multidimensional, or flows in abstract directions at the same. By contrast, in graphic design, it’s my job to find the order and to do my best make it flow in one direction for a deadline, for budget, for clients needs and that’s a little bit different. Right now, my two practices are wonderfully disorienting…


GDW: Do you have a preferred medium?

NJ: I am currently working between disciplines or in what feels like two different spaces in my brain and always trying to access more. I think if I could pinpoint any actual medium I would call it education. I’m currently pursuing an MFA in Visual Art and, as you know, master’s candidates are often asked to consider other methods and materials in an effort to expand experiences and ability to communicate. So I really have actively opened myself up to working with whatever might be most appropriate to my current lines of thought. I started the program working with wax and ink continuing my practice of encaustic painting and now I’ve shifted over to working in video, which is pretty radically different! Video and moving image and sound has a huge learning curve in terms of how one records the footage, what is captured and then how it is edited. I noticed during my past teaching semester how much I responded to the students video work, now that I am working in video myself, my understanding of the medium as vehicle has changed.


GDW: Whose work excites you most today? 

NJ: Big question! I love so much work; there is so much exciting work happening all the time. I am consistently excited by the design work of Hella Jongerius and Irma Boom. I am completely drawn to everything they say about their work and the way they answer the questions of living in this world, visually. I think about Hella Jongerius because of how she commands so many different types of materials and visual languages and, she has her specialties you know that that she’s most familiar with, but she has an elastic design mind. I’ve also been looking deeply at the work of Sheila Hicks because I love the way that she responds to her materials and the precise way that she finds methods of making her huge pieces is really beautiful. Come to think of it I fell in love with Hicks because of a book designed by Boom, same for Jongerius, so maybe my real love is BOOM! Boom is badass, she is a design rebel and has done a really beautiful job, from the very beginning of her career, of holding on to the integrity of her place within the work, her unapologetic assertiveness is a really fascinating aspect of her living legacy. The pieces that she makes become encapsulations of memories, members of space and she considers every side of them and every material nothing is left to chance, or maybe even budget!, but her work really really lovely and powerful. I find her work very inspiring as one does with anybody that’s just completely dedicated to his or her craft and c’mon, she’s got the coolest name ever!


GDW: What role if any does feminism play in your education curriculum?

NJ: I don’t think of feminism as a role or thing to be disseminated, as in something parallel or separate from my practices in a classroom. I think of it more as a current [both as presence and as a river] and active practice of balance and awareness embedded in how we work, how we language, and how we listen to one another as a classroom culture. So feminism exists as a sort of agency in my classrooms and how I teach. I also intentionally do not name it at this point and in the places that I teach, I no longer feel the need to explain what I am doing or how it is done or what the history is to a general populace. I find in my studios, the deeper conversations are happening through the students’ work and their own search for meaning in the work and in the world.


GDW: Do you think there is a different aesthetic to work created by women designers?

NJ: I hope not. I hope that there is not an aesthetic that is ‘feminine’ or that is masculine, for that matter. I hope that there is work that is communicating, challenging, informing, educating and connecting and I think that whether that takes some type of gendered role or not, in most cases, doesn’t really matter or make sense to me.

I do think the most interesting work maintains a project-specific understanding of where the work is headed, and what it’s meant to do, and how it’s meant to reach people and since it starts with people, I think sensitivity as a design ingredient comes from knowing where the designer stands inside of those intents. I think anything else is a little limiting to any broader understanding of genders and how they may be expressed and what it means to actually enfold them in the work but I don’t think it has to come from a specific gender in the first place.


GDW: What changes do you see in the future for professional women in graphic design curriculum or in terms of professional practice?

NJ: I would like the gender pay gap to be a thing of the past, I would like my daughter not to have to experience it in any professional career she chooses. I would like it not to exist in both education and the professions of graphic design and art. I think it may happen soon and when there is a real resistance asserted towards the institutional practices that maintain the disparity. From an individual standpoint, I think that comes from learning to say ‘no’ and that’s a very hard thing when you could be walking away from work and the ability to support yourself or your family. That seems a luxury that is not afforded to all.

One of the things that I think was really life changing for me was when the VCFA founding faculty was asked by, now college Dean, Matthew Monk to create the MFA in Graphic Design program in Vermont. Specifically, when I asked about salary, I had that all-too-familiar lump in my throat. The lump that says there will be inequity and your unique talents and abilities won’t factor-in in the ladder that is academia. Matthew then shared that we were all being paid the same amount for the same work — so, to start the program on those terms — was nothing short of revelatory. There was an immediate equity at start of the program and amongst the faculty. Everyone’s voice mattered, and with a new program naturally needing each individual to be very involved on multiple levels, we all overlapped in a kind of seamless and powerful way. This experience enhanced my teaching practice at VCFA and beyond, at RISD. Instead of knowing only the hierarchical power differences that I was familiar with I had another possibility to exist within and it has since inspired me to be more present about part-time faculty contract negotiations, the national movements towards equity in the gender pay gap and wage inequities in higher-education in general.


GDW: Will you comment about your experiences both as a faculty at RISD and VCFA and about your current experience as a grad student in VCFA’s MFA in Visual Art program? 

NJ: Hahaha — no comment — except that I might truly be a little bit crazy. Seriously, I’ve been at it about year now and I might be more used to it’s fluctuations and so far it has been a truly challenging and deeply intriguing experience. I have one child at home, my daughter is a high school junior and my son just finished his first year of college. We still have a full family life going on at home. I am doing my best to be present with the sort of internal flows of going back-and-forth between campuses and projects and home-life. I think I’m starting to get better at recognizing when I can employ my design-mind towards accelerating the formation of a theoretical paper or task or a video and sometimes I need to actively leave that behind for more fluidity and search.

Going back-and-forth is really active and I recognize that it’s making me a more dynamic teacher because I’m not as beholden to one discipline or pedagogical stance. I think students are responding to that fact too. I hope I’m able to be even more multidisciplinary in how I approach students’ work as I continue to pursue this degree. In my department at RISD [The Department of Foundation and Experimental Studies] I may be working with glass students, photography majors, architecture majors or sculptors and it’s really fascinating to find the languages of each of those different disciplines as a designer, and then be additionally able to approach the students and their work, as an artist. It’s really dynamic and a great advantage of going between the programs, right now. I’ll sleep later.


GDW: Yoga is an important part of your routine both as a teacher and practitioner. how do you work yoga or perhaps something else into preparing for your creative work?  

NJ: Great question! I practice movement almost every day and sometimes that will just be a five-minute series of stretches for my right shoulder [mouse arm]. Last night, I stretched the back of my legs, because they were so very tight from sitting. So, I don’t always practice a long yoga routine per se. Sometimes I just dance to move my body in space and get myself out of my brain. I also just started teaching movement to my RISD students and I was surprised by how much they loved the chance to be in their bodies, on a yoga mat. They impressed me with their dedication.

I rely on my body in my work, as Brazilian artist Helio Oticica said, ‘…the body is life’s first probe,’ and I believe that to be a true experience of being alive. Graphic designers are educators whether or not they are teaching in a traditional classroom or not. The work we do moves between people and their ideas and objects. So, if I’m teaching people, and designing and making art for people, I find it important to be really attentive and responsive to the body in space. It’s not just movement; it’s what’s eaten and how I eat it and where it comes from. It’s how I choose to work, which in my case is my home: both my studios are in my home. It’s who I choose to work with and how much time I spend doing things. For me, awareness in the body allows me to be present for my family, my fellow faculty, my students and myself, too.

GDW: Many of us appreciate that and do feel that your presence makes the world an even better place! Thank you Nikki for taking the time for this inaugural interview for GDW. <3

Listen to Nikki Juen talk about design’s continual relationships in this video by Juen, Matthew Monk and Stephen Pite:

For more about Nikki Juen, go to Nikki Juen or Happy Matter.

4 thoughts on “Nikki Juen – Rules Followed, Bent and Broken

  1. Another great interview with a fabulous person! You’re doing a great job of bringing attention to women doing interesting work at the intersection of art + design, art + activism, and a host of other intersections. Thanks for the continual inspiration.

    1. I appreciate your enthusiasm and this interview series is really based on YOUR inspiration during VCFA residency – thank you!!

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